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The Risks Of Neglecting Board Diversity Are High Stakes For Nonprofit Boards

Experts share tips for mission-driven organisations on ED&I


Mission-driven organisations strive to serve their communities and constituents with integrity and purpose. By recognising and committing to the values of equity, diversity and inclusion (ED&I) throughout their organisation and within their governing boards, they are one step closer to achieving this goal.  

Why is ED&I so critical?  

As ED&I awareness grows, nonprofits and their boards are reminded of the intrinsic social justice and the benefits from implementing authentic ED&I policies and practices. These include increased employee satisfaction, better volunteer and donor engagement, stronger collaboration as well as added creativity and innovation.  

We asked a team of global experts from various areas to share insights on the benefits of ED&I in their organisations and on boards. They also highlight ways to measure your ED&I progress. Read on to stay current with guidance and tips from these experts in ED&I.  

Experts discuss ED&I in mission-driven organisations

Each of our experts brings a unique perspective to the importance of diversity and inclusion within organisations and on governing boards.  

Organisations with ED&I policies have real impact. 

“Solving our most pressing social issues, providing a safety net of love and care, this is the immeasurably critical role of our social sector organisations. The profound impact of equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) is a centerpiece of the stewardship of these organisations; sustained and effective social response and problem solving requires diverse and inclusive governance. Far beyond corporate strategy; it’s about fulfilling missions effectively. Consider this: When boards embrace diversity, the pulse of our communities strengthens, and our impact magnifies. Nonprofits are focused on purpose-driven outcomes and the implementation of EDI efforts are critical ways to create and measure success. It’s about ensuring that every voice is heard and valued, every perspective is considered, and every individual has equal opportunities to contribute.” — Julie Castro Abrams, CEO, How Women Lead and Managing Partner, How Women Invest

“In my work with nonprofits, I’ve observed firsthand how embracing ED&I can catalyse positive change, fostering environments where creativity flourishes and solutions to complex societal challenges are found through collective wisdom. For board members, this means actively engaging in continuous learning, challenging existing paradigms, and being willing to lead by example. It’s about creating spaces where diversity is celebrated, equity is pursued with tenacity, and inclusion is the norm rather than the aspiration. The path to achieving this is ongoing and iterative, requiring a commitment to listening, learning, and adapting. By making ED&I central to our mission, values, and daily operations, we not only enrich our own organisations but also contribute to building a more just, equitable, and inclusive society.” — Patrick Downes, Partner, Governance Ireland

Inclusivity equals effectiveness and innovation. “ED&I matters because organisations that create career pathways and opportunities for a diversity of people can benefit from the very best talent in the labor market. Research from Diversity Council Australia’s Inclusion@Work Index consistently shows organisations that focus on building an inclusive workplace are more productive, high-performing and better at managing problems and identifying risks. The 2023-2024 Inclusion@Work Index found workers in inclusive teams are nearly 10 times more likely to be innovative, nearly nine times more likely to work effectively together and four times more likely to feel work has a positive impact on their mental health. They are also three times less likely to leave their organisation and more than twice as likely to be willing to work extra hard.” — Lisa Annese, CEO, Diversity Council Australia  

Supplier diversity also matters. “EDI matters also in terms of partnerships and supplier diversity.  The goal of supplier diversity is to promote economic equity and create business opportunities for historically marginalised groups. By intentionally sourcing goods and services from diverse suppliers, organisations can foster economic growth, drive social impact and contribute to the overall development of underrepresented communities.” — Gwen K. Young, CEO, Women Business Collaborative 

“By intentionally sourcing goods and services from diverse suppliers, organisations can foster economic growth, drive social impact and contribute to the overall development of underrepresented communities.” — Gwen K. Young, CEO, Women Business Collaborative 

DEI is culture change. “That doesn’t happen overnight, and it doesn’t happen at the same pace or in the same way everywhere. That’s not an argument for slowing down. It does mean that when we’re designing new programs, or hiring people to help us redesign processes, that we ask a lot of questions. Luckily that’s what boards do. What do we want our organisation to look like in the future? Why will this action help us get there? Why is this process recommended? What outcomes can we expect? What have you measured in our organisation and how? What examples are there of other organisations like ours that have been successful (or unsuccessful) in implementing these changes? I recommend the work of Lily Zheng [author of DEI Deconstructed: A No-Nonsense Guide to Doing the Work and Doing It Right] “because she is willing to hold the field of DEI practice to account, and not just call out what institutions are doing wrong. Her advice — be thoughtful, assess where your organisation is on its own DEI journey, and don’t just “throw trendy interventions at a problem to see what sticks” — is always worth taking.” — Peggy Northrop, Chief Content Strategist, Radivision; Board Member, Bay City News Foundation; and Trustee, Washington & Jefferson College

As these experts explain, organisations that embrace diversity, equity and inclusion throughout their workforce are better equipped to meet the needs of their diverse communities, attract skilled talent and build strong donor bases. They are positioned to flex with evolving regulations and social norms. They also contribute to the well-being of their employees while benefitting from those employees’ diverse points of view or life experiences.   

Boards benefit from diversity among members

Embrace diversity on the board. “Nonprofit organisations rely on the guidance and leadership of their boards of directors to address complex social, environmental, and community needs. We’ve found that a nonprofit board that embraces diverse voices and experiences is a major factor in the organisation’s success, whether it’s strategy, fundraising or program development. However, a diverse board isn’t just about ticking boxes. It’s about harnessing different perspectives to develop effective solutions and deliver meaningful impact. When a nonprofit board faces major choices, having a variety of viewpoints ensures that all angles are considered. A diverse board can identify opportunities and risks that might otherwise be overlooked as opposed to when board members have similar lived experiences and opinions. To be clear, coming to an agreement with a diverse board does take more time, more challenging conversations and potential confrontation. But that is precisely the point; developing sound solutions for mission impact requires doing hard things.” — Maya Tussing, Partner and Co-Founder, Fairlight Advisors

Refreshing board expertise

Some organsations use governance nominating committees to assess board composition, identify skill gaps and actively work on refreshing the board with diverse expertise.  

Skills audits can help. “We’ll go through a skill set matrix. We’ll then identify who’s turning off what areas, and we’ll also look at geography and gender. We then identify where our gaps are as our fiscal year comes to a close the end of June. And then we’ll hold ourselves accountable as board members.” — Larry Gumina, CEO, Ohio Living 

“We’ll go through a skill set matrix. We’ll then identify who’s turning off what areas, and we’ll also look at geography and gender. We then identify where our gaps are as our fiscal year comes to a close the end of June. And then we’ll hold ourselves accountable as board members.” — Larry Gumina, CEO, Ohio Living 

Diversity beyond gender and race. “We have evolved board composition strategy by establishing three-year classes as a substitute for term limits. Beyond diversity around race, we’ve also actively sought age and geographical diversity, realising the importance of a well-rounded board that reflects the communities we serve.” — Jim Pieffer, President and CEO, Presbyterian SeniorCare Network 

Not only is diversity and inclusion essential within the organisational structure, but it is equally important for governing boards.  When board members come from diverse backgrounds and experiences, they offer fresh perspectives — often challenging biases — leading to balanced and better decisions that might not have occurred without such diversity.  

Measuring ED&I progress

Use tools and metrics. “To get a true read on your organisation’s EDI efforts, it’s important to first measure your baseline diversity and inclusion (D&I) data. You can evaluate your organisation’s diversity by measuring the demographics in your workplace at every level, including the C-suite, to better understand the needs of your employees and to inform your EDI initiatives. Measuring how inclusive your organisation is involves using quantitative and qualitative data to determine the key markers of inclusion that occur when employees are respected at work, connected to others, have opportunities for development and progression in the workplace, and feel as though they are contributing to the success of the organisation.” — Lisa Annese, CEO, Diversity Council Australia  

Scrutinise your practices. So, how do we gauge our progress? Let’s look beyond numbers on a balance sheet. Let’s examine our retention rates, ensuring that our teams reflect the diversity of the communities we serve. Let’s scrutinise our practices, from hiring to promotion, to ensure fairness and inclusivity at every step. Prioritising diversity, recognising that investing in diversity is investing in our collective future. Our nonprofits are the greatest opportunity to lead the charge towards a more equitable and inclusive society, where our actions speak louder than words and our impact reverberates far beyond our boardrooms.” — Julie Castro Abrams, How Women Lead   

BoardEffect, our nonprofit board management software, is key to helping boards streamline their processes, enhance communications and promote accountability so they can effectively oversee and measure ED&I initiatives.   

“By harnessing governance technology, mission-driven organisations can not only measure but also enhance their ED&I efforts, reinforcing their commitment to creating positive social impact. Through features like customisable surveys and polls, organisations can collect pertinent data on board demographics, perceptions and skills inventory that can inform succession planning and board diversity initiatives.” — Nonie Dalton, Vice President of Product Management, Diligent 

A commitment to ED&I requires intention

Intentionality for results. “Effective leadership and governance thrives on diversity of perspectives and diversity of perspectives doesn’t just happen. It takes intentionality. There are historical and societal systems in play that can undermine diversity efforts but when organisations take a deliberate and purposeful approach, it can lead to more innovative and successful policies, actions, and programs. My organisation, under the leadership of our president and CEO and the staff, has exercised great intentionality in all aspects of our governance and it has promoted a thoughtful, proactive, and results-oriented approach for the future.” — Stephen A. Leach, Board Chair, Leadership Center of Excellence  

Ensure every voice is heard and valued. “Equity, diversity and inclusion are the cornerstones of a vibrant, resilient, and impactful nonprofit organisation. They go beyond ticking boxes; they’re about weaving a rich tapestry of perspectives, experiences, and skills that mirror the complexity and richness of the communities we aim to serve. To effectively gauge our progress in ED&I, we must employ a multifaceted approach—assessing not just the demographic diversity of our teams and boards but also the inclusiveness of our work environment and the fairness of our practices and policies. It’s about ensuring that every voice within the organisation can speak and be heard, that every hand can contribute and be valued. Boards of directors have a unique and powerful role in championing ED&I by embedding these values into the strategic beating heart of their organisations. This commitment is key to driving meaningful change, fostering innovation, and amplifying impact. By prioritising ED&I, we’re not only aligning with our ethical imperatives but also significantly enhancing our effectiveness and connection with the diverse communities we pledge to serve.” — Patrick Downes, Partner, Governance Ireland

Our leaders explain with clarity how important equity, diversity and inclusion should be to every nonprofit organisation and board. Only with sincere intention and unwavering dedication to these values, will mission-driven organisations experience the real benefits to their organisations, communities and society at-large.  

Let BoardEffect help on your path to ED&I

Committing to ED&I is crucial for nonprofits, charitable organisations and the boards that govern them. The upsides — from more donor support and operational efficiency to strong organisational cultures and board member collaboration — are many. Yet, with all the other responsibilities and mandates, this can be daunting for nonprofits without supportive resources and technology.  

BoardEffect has been designed to help boards manage those day-to-day, recurring and annual tasks like meetings, documentation, audits and governance so you can focus on building those essential policies on equity, diversity and inclusion. 

Jennifer Rose Hale

Jennifer Rose Hale has over 20 years' experience with digital and employee communications in for- and nonprofit environments. Her writing and client areas of expertise include education, finance, science and technology.

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